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What to do when our abusive relationship is coming from a parent / sibling

Advice for adults coping with adult relatives, who are abusive.

"Family is supposed to be our safe haven. Very often, it's the place where we find the deepest heartache." – Iyanla Vanzant"

In this article, I want to address the challenge of living a happy life when you are connected to relatives who are abusive - this being a response to the question I am asked almost weekly,

"is your book useful for me, it's my [relative] who is abusive".

So, here's my answer - detailed, as those who know me might expect :)

(I've not included adults being abused by their adult children, in this audience for this piece).

What we don't know, can hurt us

Abusive family members are a particular psychological challenge for adults who have grown with them, particularly if they are parents, but also if they are siblings or other close relatives such as grandparents.

There are three main themes here, that make this so complex:

  1. What we perceive as normal.

  2. What we feel obligated to do (partnered with guilt).

  3. How we source self-worth.

These all refer to inner and unconscious expectations we have of the world and coping systems we have developed to meet these expectations. We often run on autopilot, even when it is very challenging, and it is the absence of insight or knowledge that this is going on - that can lead us to more pain.

Let's look at each one in turn:

1. What we perceive as normal

To put a huge amount of child and adult development theory into a single sentence, "the child is the parent to the adult".

What I mean by this, is that the experiences you had as a child, birthed you / shaped you / prepared you / set you up - to be the adult you are today.

The family unit provides the experiences that shape the child's mind and the child then goes into the world, expecting a wider version of the family experiences.

Abuse in the family (even witnessing it between parents) complicates the growth of children and later experiences/emotions/coping.

Children learn to be careful, to serve the needs of the abusive relationship, to put their own needs last, to fear getting it wrong - to feel fear, obligation, guilt and shame in droves... and more, of course. Emotions that are powerful and are linked to the relative, the person we love and are meant to love (a key word here, for later).

Despite all of this, we perceive normality in this relationship. It may be awful, but in general we as adults feel to blame or feel that there is no avoiding the negative feelings, despite being older, independent and in lives of our own. It's often only through the lens of others seeing the relationship, and commenting, that you might recognise it as wrong - but even then, what to do about it?

The first step, is to get educated. Not just on what abusive people do, but on how abusive behaviours of others change us as people. How what we think of as feelings in us (fear, obligation, guilt, shame etc), are in fact coping systems we grew into - to manage the life with our abusive relative. Understand that how we respond - is learned and that to unlearn it or to grow beyond it, we first need to understand it.

Yes, some of this is addressed in my book - is the answer to the question I get asked a lot. I take abuse apart and reveal how it shapes people. It's more complex though, in adults who were children with the abuser - as the reference point to a time that was not abusive might be less clear. The early emotional experiences are stubborn and return at lightening speed as adults... the drama cycles were our life and still are for many. My book is about people who fall in love - I'd have not said it was for people whose relatives are abusive - it's others who have read it, who are telling me it helps. So, I'm going out on a limb here to say - it might.

What we feel obligated to do (partnered with guilt).

Leaving a relative behind, breaking contact permanently - it is challenging (and not always feasible). Leaving a sibling or grandparent, I think is easier sometimes. Leaving a parent, or even both - that's more than a challenge, it breaks almost everything we feel and believe, personally and as a society. Even harder, if that parent is in need - perhaps elderly and unwell, with only you to call on (and probably continue to abuse).

Leaving isn't the only option - but it can feel like it. Our abuser, especially if our parent, holds the remote control on our feelings.

Fear - click.

Obligation - click.

Guilt - click.

Shame - click.

The feelings we dread, they can switch on with a glance, a single word - or a full-on attack.

Unfortunately, these feelings are the chains to abusive people. We fear leaving them, we feel obligated to have them in our lives ("you should, you must"). We feel great guilt when we don't do as they ask or when we do as they ask, but get it wrong. We feel shame - shame for feeling this way, as an adult - shame for wanting to end the relationship.... shame, it's very common (but it's something we can end).

Yes, my book hits home in these areas. Fear, obligation, guilt and shame - they are incredibly powerful, but also manageable and soothable. I had feedback recently, from somebody undertaking the programme...

"how can shame be this simple to stop? I feel like it's stopped, but I don't trust it - as I've felt it for 20 years".

How? Because the story of abuse and how it leads to shame, is so powerful to realise. You realise it's the story, the shared experience - not that you deserve it. It is a feeling that comes out of abuse, not out of you being you. More complex than this of course, but I walk you through it.

All of this requires the relationship to change. For some, they leave their relative - for good! Never turn back - no guilt, no shame. Turning up for abuse, is not expected of anyone. For others, they learn to boundary the relationship. Be supportive, but never turn up for the abuse. Draw lines. Leave. Reduce conversation. Work on themselves when the emotions resurface. This part is of your own design - with the rule that you are not turning up to be abused.

In the book I favour leaving, but I recognise this is too black and white to fit in everyone's life. For those who can't, who choose to keep contact - there is a need to learn to seek validation from yourself and not your parent, learn to never expect appreciation / closure from them - enabling you to turn up for your own reasons, not to serve the demands of an abusive person who is actually meant to love you.

(On this note, abuse is not love as you hope or expect it. Some people just can't love. Simple, don't believe it's because you are unloveable... as you are).

How we source self-love.

We arrive at the chink in your armour - the ever-lasting need to one day be loved, to receive love and to have returned to you the love you give out.

Love has been wrapped in abuse - you do right, you take the abuse - you get some sort of dysfunctional love. For much of your life.

The work is needed to meet your own needs, to rescue yourself before others, to get closure on your relative's inability to love and to develop a deep and felt self-love that shields you from their future antics.

This isn't a preachy speech I'm giving that needs cascading music behind it fro dramatic effect - it's a known gap for those who can't break out of abuse. The need to be validated by others, the lack of self-worth and the ability to prioritise your own needs.

This is again delivered in the book. This being the universal need for all people who leave abuse. It is the end point of recovery, being the start point of a new lifestyle - and it needs to be practiced, developed and built into us - providing what perhaps was missing as a child.

The 3 critical components

"I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become." – Carl Jung

When all 3 are developed, we are capable of the ideas I offer here. We can feel loved, despite the antics of family - as we don't ever need them to be the source. We protect ourselves and draw lines because we naturally protect things we love.

I've seen it in many people, including the adult children of abusers who have fed back to me.

The book is one route.

The programme is a more substantive route.

Both are for people in romantic relationships, but if you can shift your perspective to hear the stories as metaphors for relatives - I think there is valuable learning.

If I could find another resource that addressed these themes I would point you do it, but I can't. It's why I created it for domestic abuse victims, and so if it helps you - what an amazing outcome!

I'd love feedback from anyone who tries this, as I write this after being prompted by others - and the stories of people are the best evidence, I find.


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